Review of Amr Osman, The Zahiri Madhhab

Here is my review of a new book on the Zahiri school of law, commonly called “literalist” but better described as “textualist” according to Amr Osman. Unfortunately, I found that the book suffers from numerous problems, which are documented in the review.

David R. Vishanoff. Review of Amr Osman, The Ẓāhirī Madhhab (3rd/9th–10th/16th Century): A Textualist Theory of Islamic Law (Leiden: Brill, 2014). Der Islam 93 no. 2 (2016): 603–609.

Permanent link to the published article (Version of Record): DOI 10.1515/islam-2016-0047

Given the negative nature of the review, I do not wish to distribute it widely, and so will not post the full text here. It is important only for those scholars who are considering making serious use of Osman’s book.

Images of David in several Muslim rewritings of the Psalms

A very rich conference on King David was held in the elegant setting of the Institute of History at the University of Warsaw from October 26 to 28, 2016. Many thanks and congratulations to Marzena Zawanowska for organizing such a splendidly comparative and interdisciplinary gathering! My presentation updated my earlier mapping of the manuscript families of the Islamic Psalms (see An Imagined Book Gets a New Text: Psalms of the Muslim David) and explored how the figure of David was reshaped by the editors of the various recensions:

“Images of David in Several Muslim Rewritings of the Psalms.” Warrior, Poet, Prophet and King: The Character of David in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, University of Warsaw, Poland, October 28, 2016.

Here is a pdf of the paper, as delivered, and here is a pdf of the slides presented, which include the quotations discussed in the paper as well as several visualizations of the relationships between the various recensions of the psalms (produced from my database of notes using Gephi graph visualization software and the amazing RAW visualization tool by Density Design). The paper was written for oral presentation, without documentation; I plan to expand and document it for the volume of essays that is expected to result from the conference.

The anthropological turn in Islamic legal interpretation

On July 23-24, 2016, the Zentrum für Islamische Theologie at the University of Tübingen did a superb job of organizing and hosting a conference on “Islamic Theology – Past, Present and Future: Global Challenges and Prospective Synergies in the Academic Study of Islam.” My presentation dealt once again with the Indonesian thinker Aksin Wijaya, arguing that his explicitly anthropocentric epistemology reflects a broader shift in Islamic thought that opens up new conversations between historical and confessional scholarship on Islam:

“The Anthropological Turn in Islamic Legal Interpretation.” Islamic Theology – Past, Present and Future: Global Challenges and Prospective Synergies in the Academic Study of Islam, University of Tübingen, July 24, 2016.

Here is a pdf of the paper, as delivered. It was written for oral presentation, without documentation. I plan to use it as the framework for a published article incorporating aspects of several papers I have given recently on Qur’anic hermeneutics in contemporary Indonesia.

OU/Exaptive Discourse Map software

When I met Dave King, the creator of a data analysis and visualization platform called Exaptive, we quickly realized that the tools he was using with scientists could be applied to my humanities research in Islamic studies. With the support of the University of Oklahoma’s Kelvin Droegemeier (Vice President for Research), Rick Luce (Dean of Libraries), and Carl Grant (Libraries Associate Dean of Knowledge Services & CTO), the Exaptive team created a pilot application (a ‘Xap’) that searched for my research terms (hermeneutics, language, tafsir, etc.) in WorldCat, returned thousands of bibliographic records, and then mapped out visually the other significant words that appeared in those records, clustering the words that occurred most often together. It also mapped out the books whose bibliography entries contained those words, as well as their authors, grouping them visually based on which terms they had in common. Those visual maps were interactive: hover over one term and the related works are highlighted, etc. Each dot on the map served as a link to the WorldCat record and to my library’s book request form. It was a completely new way to discover not only books relevant to my project, but also unforeseen concepts that I had not realized might be important for my research. The discourse maps looked like this:

My role in the development process was to be the researcher guinea pig, testing each iteration of the software on a real research project and participating in weekly update and design meetings. Over the course of 2015-2016 we expanded and refined the Xap until it was quite powerful, but it was not yet stable and robust enough to be made publicly available. As of 2017 I am working with Exaptive to produce a next-generation version of the software that will be easily customizable for specific research projects and textual corpora.

I have made a number of presentations about the original vision and the developing software:

The project and Exaptive were the subject of a May 27, 2016 article “Big data comes to OKC to study everything from quakes to Quran,” by Lucia Walinchus, in the Oklahoma City business and legislative newspaper The Journal Record.

Article on al‑Shāfiʿī’s hermeneutics: الهرمنيوطيقا الفقهية عند الإمام الشافعي

This Arabic article on the legal hermeneutics of al‑Shāfiʿī was presented at a regional meeting of the Nahdlatul Ulama in Yogyakarta, Indonesia in 2013, and then published in a journal edited by my host Dr. Sahiron Syamsuddin (with me in the picture above):

David R. Vishanoff. “Al‑hirminyūṭīqā al‑fiqhiyya ʿinda al‑Imām al‑Shāfiʿī.” International Journal of Pesantren Studies 7 no. 2 (2015 [2016]): 263–281.

Here is a pdf of the article (marked up to indicate a few corrections necessitated by formatting issues).

Here is the English abstract:

Hermeneutics is not a new discipline among Muslim thinkers; it goes back to al‑Shāfiʿī’s founding of the discipline of legal theory (uṣūl al‑fiqh). This article examines the role al‑Shāfiʿī played in the founding of Islamic legal hermeneutics, and then describes his hermeneutic as one of great flexibility for defining hermeneutical intertextual relationships, and great freedom for deriving legal rules from texts. Then it presents the goal of al‑Shāfiʿī’s hermeneutic as the establishment of a perfect correlation between his legal opinions and the Qurʾānic verses and Prophetic traditions that were widely accepted in his time. Then it indicates the most important consequence of al‑Shāfiʿī’s legal hermeneutic: the possibility of imagining a legal system that is at once divine and human, that is entirely based on the texts of divine revelation yet also evolves to suit the needs of human society across time and space.